The Ripple Effect: How two Buffalo businesses are transforming their communities

The past decade has witnessed dramatic changes in the city of Buffalo. From the skyline to the sidewalks, no facet of the city has been left untouched. While much attention has gone to, for example, the Harbor Center transformation or the expansion of the medical corridor, it is the startups popping up across the city that bring the economic rebound to everyday Buffalonians.

Other cities have seen the ripple effect of small businessestake Detroit, for example. Once known only for its declining automobile industry, this rust belt city is now being praised for the importance of its startups. Peter Truog, writing for City Lab, notes the necessity of what he calls 'job hubs' led by small business in rust belt cities looking to make comebacks. These hubs may begin with lone small-businesses popping up in underserved neighborhoods, or with larger enterprises that alter the job market dramatically.

To explore how this phenomenon is playing out in Buffalo, Upstart NY is undertaking a new series, “The Ripple Effect”, which will profile how investments by business owners in the city can revitalize communities beyond their own walls.

To launch the series, Upstart NY takes a look at how two Buffalo startupsa small, grassroots business in Buffalo’s West Side neighborhood and a larger, high-growth business near City Centerhave created new opportunities for local people and the communities they live in.

Breadhive Bakery: Creating business owners and community

Connecticut St, located in the West Side neighborhood of Buffalo, has all the hallmarks of an up-and-coming commercial area. Parking on a weekday afternoon is hard to come bybut free. Just a few blocks from the bustling stores of Elmwood Village, the area offers business owners traffic without the high prices of the city's most desired commercial real estate.

This is the home of the Breadhive Bakery, a co-op business whose new location on Connecticut Street has been open for just over a year. The location represents the company's expansion from a wholesale bakery business to include a café with something for everyoneincluding the chance for any employee to become a business owner.

Emily Stewart, one of the original owners of the bakery, says that she gets a lot of questions about how the co-op model works.

"We wanted to be able to share the fruits of our labor," Stewart says. "It's about building community capital. If you're building wealth that is being filtered through a community, we (the community) should control that money."

Breadhive has longstanding ties to the West Side, and has always made a point to give back to it. The business has its roots in the co-op on Elmwood and North, where it existed under the name Fancy and Delicious. There Stewart and partner Allison Ewing shared a kitchen with the local chapter of 'Food not Bombs'a charitable organization that works to distribute food to those in need. The bakers began donating their excess product to their kitchen-mates. To this day, Breadhive has maintained its connection with the charity, and has expanded its efforts to work with another local organization called 'Waste-not-want-not.' Together, they redistribute food that would otherwise end up in the garbage.

Just down the block is Burning Books, where a quick survey of the shelves reveals a bookshop that is a far cry from a suburban chain store. Racks of stapled paperback prints sit next to books of old protest posters, and the walls are lined with titles decryingEmily Stewart fascism and hailing ecological conservation.

John Buckley, who can be found behind the counter on rare days when the owners are out of the store, says they enjoy having friendly neighbors at Breadhive. Buckley is also on the board of directors for PUSH Buffalo, an organization devoted to equal opportunity housing, among other things, on the West Side. He worries that the changes occurring on the West Side will be detrimental to a neighborhood where residents already struggle to pay their rent and utilities.

“We appreciate small businesses over corporate chains,” says Leslie James Pickering, one of the owners at Burning Books. "Our business is a tool to help bring about social justice, not gentrification, and we work to change the system, not the neighborhood."

At Breadhive, Stewart expresses much the same objective.

"We are striving to create the café as a safe and comfortable environment for all people," Stewart says. She shares Pickering's concern, acknowledging the need to grow not just in loaves-baked, but also by serving everyone in the neighborhood. 

Stewart recalls some simple advice: "start with who you're hiring." The co-owners intend to heed that counsel as Breadhive continues to grow, by remaining conscious of their diverse West Side community.

"We look at our space as an opportunity for us to share what we are doing," she says. 

Bak USA : Cultivating the immigrant community

Take Delaware Ave south to the city center, then head East to Michigan Ave and you’ll find the neighborhood where BAK USA has been causing a stir with their novel approach to hiring and manufacturing. The company manufactures laptop and tablet computers which are assembled, start to finish, by a single employee in Buffalo. 

The Bak USA offices are located in the Compass East building on Michigan Ave. They share the space with organizations like the Center for Development of Human Servicesan extension of the social-work program at SUNY at Buffalo State Collegeand the McGuire Group Training Center. On the day that Ulla Bak sat down for this interview, the building was also playing host to a local job fair.

Ulla BakThe Compass East building sits on the edge of downtown Buffalo. Move a few streets West and one finds the central bus terminal, the Bison’s stadium, and City Hall. The central location contributes to the company's ability to draw in Buffalo's diverse residents, many of them recent immigrants. Bak USA employs a workforce that speaks 27 languages.

The team at Bak USA got their start in Port-au-Prince Haiti, where they saw a need for stable jobs. With the help of a grant from USAID, they launched a company called Sûrtab SA, began hiring exclusively female employees. These women were often struggling to care for their children as single mothers. With Sûrtab SA, the women began making three times what other available jobs paid. The company began offering courses to help their employees respond to domestic violence, and ensured that their weekly salaries could be deposited directly so that no employee would need to take the risk of carrying their cash to the bank themselves.

The next challenge for the Bak family was to answer the call from their supporters at USAID.

"[They said] 'If you can do it in America, please do it'" Bak recalls. Detroit was an early front-runner for the company's U.S. location, but the Baks saw a support system in Buffalo that they couldn't pass up.

The tablets and computer sold by BAK are manufactured in the company's bright, airy workroom here in Buffalo. Builders sit in teams, an approach that allows more experienced builders to help their peers if questions arise.

Crucial to the BAK model is their hiring approach, which emphasizes real-time evaluations rather than traditional credentials. Applicants are asked to play with Legos to demonstrate their dexterity, and the process is designed to reveal their ability to work as part of a team.

"We would rather have a good work climate than optimal production," Bak says.

The approach drew in BAK's diverse workforce organically. As a major destination for refugee resettlement, the neighborhoods of Buffalo grow more global by the year. These Buffalonians have their own set of challenges, and BAK is ready to serve as employer and support system for its employees. The company provides support services to the resettled refugees they employ. For example, the company will begin offering ESL classes to their employees this August.

While the airy BAK offices may have little in common aesthetically with the cozy Breadhive café on the West Side, the impact created for the employees and the community is much the same. At BAK, highly educated engineers work alongside the builders, and everyone attends the same summer and Christmas parties. At Breadhive, an employee can start simply working the counter and find themselves co-owners of the business.

And that impact means taking some unconventional approaches to doing business. For the founders of Breadhive, the co-op model means a smaller stake each time they accept a new co-owner. For BAK, the choice to build computers individually may mean less efficient production than using an assembly line.

But ask Emily Stewart or Ulla Bak, and they will tell you these 'sacrifices' actually make the companies, and the communities they serve, all the better. Better products, happier and more productive employees, and a lot more to go around.

All photos by Nancy Parisi.

Read more articles by Kelly Coughlin.

Kelly is a native of the town of Maine, NY, who moved to Buffalo to attend the Honors College at the University at Buffalo. She earned a B.S. in Biological Science (with a minor in English) and now is attending the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences to pursue an MD. She enjoys painting and can do pretty much anything while holding a cup of coffee.
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